Saturday, May 15, 2010

principles for ethical educational research

I've been thinking lately about the burden of speaking for others.

Because I'm an educational researcher, and speaking for others is the heart of what we do. We walk into a classroom, watch some things happen for a little while, then make decisions about which stories are worth telling, and how, and why, and to whom. And this is precisely what we're supposed to do. This is precisely why we head into the classroom in the first place: to tell stories about what learning looks like.

But it can be such a heavy burden, this speaking for others. You know the burden is heavy when the simplest challenge is finding a way to represent what happened in a way that everybody would agree is reasonable and accurate. But that's not where our responsibility ends, because no research findings are politically or socially neutral. Every representation of research is an articulation of a belief system; it's an expression of a worldview; it's a document that leads people to act in ways that can help or hurt the populations we hope to represent.

And the burden gets heavier for researchers working with marginalized, oppressed, or disenfranchised populations, since speaking for these groups can so easily fall into a reproduction of the oppression that rains down on them from all around. Paulo Freire warns us against the "false charity" that so often comes from members of dominant groups who wish to help the oppressed:

False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the "rejects of life," to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands--whether of individuals or entire peoples--need to be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.
It seems to me that false charity emerges when a person becomes too confident that she knows and understands the needs and interests of the oppressed groups she hopes to represent. False charity can therefore look like an awful lot of things: Research focusing on vocational education for poor kids. (Why would we dare to assume working class kids wouldn't want to go to college?) Research showing working class kids are capable of doing college-level work. (Using college readiness as our measure of 'success' allows policymakers to continue to make decisions that assume that college readiness is the most important goal, thereby continuing to marginalize kids for whom college is neither desired nor possible.) Research documenting the learning trajectories of immigrant students. (We're at a cultural point at which nearly anything that's said about immigrants, especially in America, can be twisted to hurt the very populations it's intended to help.)

I've been working in a small alternative high school populated primarily by lower class and working-class kids. I've seen miracles happen in this school for many of its students, and I've met graduates of the school who talk about their time in the school as the most powerful and important educational experience of their lives. Sitting in a classroom in this school, or walking down its halls, or talking to its students, reminds me of how powerfully transformative an education can be. I wish you could all spend a day at this school. You would walk out joyful, hopeful and optimistic about the future of our children. You would walk out with a renewed faith in human beings.

But you won't get the chance to visit this school, because the school board decided to shut it down. I probably don't need to tell you that I think this is a mistake. I further believe that the decision to close this school was motivated by a deep cultural prejudice against poor kids. We don't often say it out loud, but we hold a cultural belief that a child's value is largely determined by the likelihood that she will go to college; our culture is embarrassed by its children who are poor, who live in rented houses or youth shelters or foster care, who are not college-bound. Our society is built on the backs of these kids; we need their labor to keep our society running--and this need only embarrasses us all the more.

It's the job of researchers who work with marginalized populations to represent their research in a way that not only serves the best interests of those populations but also helps to rewrite the cultural narrative that keeps these populations oppressed. It's not easy work, simple work, or quick work, but it's necessary work.

With these things in mind, I want to offer a set of principles for educational research that I hope can help guide researchers in our work with marginalized populations--and maybe our work with all sorts of learning populations.

1. We exist in the service of the communities we work for. I have to believe that when we forget this, it's on accident. But we must never, ever forget that our work should first of all support the needs and interests of both the learners and the educators working inside of our chosen learning communities. This means that we have to actually talk to the learners and educators to find out what they want, and we have to take them at their word and not, for example, guess that if they knew more about the world they'd want something different.

2. We exist to serve the needs and interests of the communities we work for. It is not our job to decide whether a community's interests are good or right; it's only our job to work in service of those interests. If a researcher can't get behind the stated needs and interests of the members of her chosen research community, then she needs to find another community to research.

3. It's our job to represent our work in ways that support ethical decisions by policymakers and external stakeholders. Educational researchers serve as an important bridge between learning communities and policymakers who make decisions about the futures of those communities. One of our most essential roles is to represent research findings in a way that is clear and useful to policymakers while also representing to those policymakers findings that support the needs and interests of the communities we serve. I'm not saying this is easy. I'm just saying it's essential.

4. All educational research is social activism, and all educational researchers are social activists. There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. Let me say that again: There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. All statements of research findings are statements of a belief system about the role of education, and all researchers must therefore do research that both aligns with and serves to articulate that belief system. Further, all researchers must make their belief system clear, to themselves, to the communities they work for, and to policymakers who make decisions about those communities. They must always ensure that their belief system aligns with the needs and interests of the communities they work for, and if there is a conflict then the community's interests always trump the belief system of its researchers. If the ethical conflict is irreconcilable, then the researcher must find another community to represent.

Here I want to crib a quote from Jim Gee, who laid out his own set of principles for ethical human behavior in his book Social Linguistics and Literacies. After describing these principles, he made this declaration:

I would claim that all human beings would, provided they understood them, accept these conceptual principles. Thus, failing to live up to them, they would, for consistency’s sake, have to morally condemn their own behavior. However, I readily admit that, should you produce people who, understanding these principles, denied them, or acted as though they did, I would not give up the principles. Rather, I would withhold the term ‘human’, in its honorific, not biological, sense, from such people.

This declaration was made in the second edition of Gee's book; if you own the third edition, don't bother looking for the quote--for reasons that are unclear to me, he removed it and instead simply asserts that we really shouldn't bother trying to change the minds of people who disagree with these ethical principles. I want to call for a return to the stronger language. Given the incredibly high stakes of public education in America, we don't have time for politeness. We're in a fight for the very lives of the students we serve, and it may be that too much politeness is what got us here in the first place.


Luke Hokama said...

Another great post, thank you. I always appreciate people in other fields of study that articulate exactly what I think and feel, but cannot express myself, due to lack of specific knowledge or language. I'm also thankful there's people like you "speaking for others" to combat the other end of the spectrum that I would deem completely ignorant. Again, thanks!

Kevin Hodgson said...

What a fantastic post, Jenna, and so insightful, too. I'm grateful for the viewpoint of the researcher trying to make sense of it all and also, of your four points around the essence of the researcher. I imagine some researchers might take issue with the idea that the job is to interpret what they see through various lens (although, that must happen for everyone, right? We all have a lens that we view the world through).
Thank you for giving me some time to reflect, and as Bud said in his tweet of your post, I need to read it again.

Rafi Santo said...

Jenna, this is really wonderful (as usual). I wonder, though, about how consistently we should apply the idea that a researcher should always be an ambassador for the stated needs and interests of a given community that one is researching. What if a community has a need or interest that is itself unethical, may cause harm to its own members, or to another community? What if a community has been so oppressed so as to be enmeshed in an unproductive cycle of violence? What if a community is one where oppressors often come from to then perpetuate cycles of violence? Is there no place for evaluating stated needs and desires, must they always be taken at face value?

While I definitely do know that there is a long and troubled history of imposition of practices and ideals from outsiders, elites, and colonizers of many stripes, I don't think that that history should prevent us from sometimes questioning the stated desires and interests of a group. Those desires and interests should line up with a firm ethical standpoint that a researcher develops (and I think having a practice of questioning and refining ones own system of ethics is a responsibility every researcher, and really, every person, has), and should also not be in conflict with things that that researcher knows to be poor decisions. (A school district that wants to buy iPads instead of actual laptops comes to mind.)

When we have an education system that is so weak and a marketing system that is so strong in the US, I would not always assume that stated desires and interests come from an informed place. This is one of the core reasons that I don't believe we have a true jeffersonian democracy in this country (one that includes an informed populace) and is one of the reasons that I believe that focusing on improving our educational system is so important to the future health our our democracy.

Really curious to hear your thoughts on this, and keep the incredible posts coming!

Jenna McWilliams said...

Thanks for your comments, guys!
@Rafi, I think the hard work of educational research is in honoring the community's needs while offering strategies for more productive solutions. A group of marginalized kids caught in a cycle of violence, for example, probably have a need that's worth honoring--they want to express frustration and rage, maybe--even if their choices in how to express their need lead to conflicts with other needs and interests--a desire to finish school or maintain freedom to live their lives, and so on. So we have to find ways to honor the needs while offering better strategies for getting needs met.

@Kevin, I'm new to this educational research thing, but I have met researchers who fundamentally disagree with my position. Clearly, a need to open up honest dialogue about these issues exists, though I don't know how to begin a conversation with someone who believes there's such a thing as 'politically neutral educational research.' Maybe ask me again after I've finished my second year of graduate study?

@Luke, thanks for the encouragement! This was a really hard post to write, and I spent a long time slogging through it. It's nice to know i'm producing writing that's of interest to others.


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